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The Question We’ve Stopped Asking About Teen-Agers and Social Media – The New Yorker

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The Question We’ve Stopped Asking About Teen-Agers and Social Media

An iPhone inside a pack of cigarettes.

Illustration by Ben Denzer

The trouble started in mid-September, when the Wall Street Journal published an exposé titled “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.” The article revealed that Facebook had identified disturbing information about the impact of their Instagram service on young users. It cited an internal company presentation, leaked to the paper by an anonymous whistle-blower, that included a slide claiming that “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Another slide offered a blunter conclusion: “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

These revelations sparked a media firestorm. “Instagram Is Even Worse Than We Thought for Kids,” announced a Washington Post article published in the days following the Journal’s scoop. “It’s Not Just Teenage Girls—Instagram Is Toxic for Everyone,” claimed an op-ed in the Boston Globe. “Zuckerberg’s public comments about his platform’s effects on mental health appear to be at odds with Facebook’s internal findings,” noted the New York Post. In a defiant post published on his Facebook account, Mark Zuckerberg pushed back, stating that the motives of his company were “misrepresented.” The very fact that Facebook was conducting this research, he wrote, implies that the company cares about the health impact of its products. Zuckerberg also pointed to data, included in the leaked slides, that showed how, in eleven out of the twelve areas of concern that were studied (such as loneliness and eating issues), more teen-age girls said that Instagram helped rather than hurt. In the background, however, the company paused work on a new Instagram Kids service.

These corporate responses weren’t enough to stem the criticism. In early October, the whistle-blower went public in an interview on “60 Minutes,” revealing herself to be Frances Haugen, a data scientist who had worked for Facebook on issues surrounding democracy and misinformation. Two days later, Haugen testified for more than three hours before a Senate subcommittee, arguing that Facebook’s focus on growth over safeguards had resulted in “more division, more harm, more lies, more threats, and more combat.” In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Democrat and Republican members of the subcommittee seemed to agree that these social-media platforms were a problem. “Every part of the country has the harms that are inflicted by Facebook and Instagram,” the subcommittee chair, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, stated in a press conference following Haugen’s testimony.

This is far from the first time that Facebook has faced scrutiny. What struck me about this particular pile-on, however, was less its tone—which was near-uniformly negative—than what was missing. The commentary reacting to the Journal’s scoop was quick to demand punishment and constraints on Facebook. In many cases, the writers seethed with frustration about the lack of such retribution enacted to date. “Both Democrats and Republicans have lambasted Facebook for years, amid polls showing the company is deeply unpopular with much of the public,” noted a representative article from the Washington Post. “Despite that, little has been done to bring the company to heel.” What’s largely absent from the discussion, however, is any consideration of what is arguably the most natural response to the leaks about Instagram’s potential harm: Should kids be using these services at all?

There was a moment in 2018, in the early stages of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when the hashtag #DeleteFacebook began to trend. Quitting the service became a rational response to the growing litany of accusations that Facebook faced, such as engineered addiction, privacy violations, and its role in manipulating civic life. But the hashtag soon lost momentum, and the appetite for walking away from social media diminished. Big-swing Zeitgeist articles—such as a 2017 Atlantic story that asked “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”—gave way to smaller policy-focussed polemics about arcane regulatory responses and the nuances of content-moderation strategies. This cultural shift has helped Facebook. “The reality is that young people use technology. Think about how many school-age kids have phones,” Zuckerberg wrote in his post responding to the latest scandal. “Rather than ignoring this, technology companies should build experiences that meet their needs while also keeping them safe.” Many of the politicians and pundits responding to the Facebook leaks implicitly accept Zuckerberg’s premise that these tools are here to stay, and all that’s left is to argue about how they operate.

I’m not sure, however, that we should be so quick to give up on interrogating the necessity of these technologies in our lives, especially when they impact the well-being of our children. In an attempt to keep this part of the conversation alive, I reached out to four academic experts—selected from both sides of the ongoing debate about the harm caused by these platforms—and asked them, with little preamble or instruction, the question missing from so much of the recent coverage of the Facebook revelations: Should teen-agers use social media? I wasn’t expecting a consensus response, but I thought it was important, at the very least, to define the boundaries of the current landscape of expert opinion on this critical issue.

I started with the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has emerged in recent years, in both academic and public circles, as one of the more prominent advocates for issues surrounding social media and teen-age mental health. In his response to my blunt question, Haidt drew a nuanced distinction between communication technology and social media. “Connecting directly with friends is great,” he told me. “Texting, Zoom, FaceTime, and Snapchat are not so bad.” His real concern were platforms that are specifically engineered to “keep the child’s eyes glued to the screen for as long as possible in a never-ending stream of social comparison and validation-seeking from strangers”—platforms that see the user as the product, not the customer. “How did we ever let Instagram and TikTok become a large part of the lives of so many eleven-year-olds?” he asked.

I also talked to Adam Alter, a marketing professor at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, who was thrown into the social-media debate by the publication of his fortuitously timed 2017 book, “Irresistible,” which explored the mechanisms of addictive digital products. “There’s more than one way to answer this question, and most of those point to no,” he answered. Alter said that he has delivered this same prompt to hundreds of parents and that “none of them seem happy that their teens use social media.” Many of the teens he spoke with have confirmed a similar unease. Alter argued that we shouldn’t dismiss these self-reports: “If they feel unhappy and can express that unhappiness, even that alone suggests the problem is worth taking seriously.” He went on to add that these issues are not necessarily easy to solve. He expressed worry, for example, about the difficulty of trying to move a teen-ager away from social media if most of their peers are using these platforms to organize their social lives.

On the more skeptical side of the debate about the potential harm to teen-agers is Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and one of the world’s leading experts on adolescence. In the aftermath of Haugen’s Senate testimony, Steinberg published an Op-Ed in the Times that argued that the research linking services like Instagram to harm is still underdeveloped, and that we should be cautious about relying on intuition. “Psychological research has repeatedly shown that we often don’t understand ourselves as well as we think we do,” he wrote. In answering my question, Steinberg underscored his frustration with claims that he thinks are out ahead of what the data support. “People are certain that social media use must be harmful,” he told me. “But history is full of examples of things that people were absolutely sure of that science proved wrong. After all, people were certain that the world was flat.”

Another leading academic who expresses caution about stamping out social media is Amy Orben, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, who specializes in the statistical analysis of large data sets. In 2019, Orben, along with an experimental psychologist at Oxford named Andrew Przybylski, made waves with a contrarian study that they published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. The paper applied an advanced statistical technique called specification-curve analysis to three large-scale social data sets, which contained responses from more than three hundred and fifty thousand individuals. Orben and Przybylski found, in contrast to previously published results, only a minor negative association between digital technology and adolescent well-being. “Taking the broader context of the data into account suggests that these effects are too small to warrant policy change,” they conclude. In response to my question about teen-agers using social media, Orben echoed this conclusion that researchers shouldn’t be making behavior recommendations. “Teenagers have the right to do what they want to do and what they see [as] appropriate,” she told me. “I don’t think I am in the capacity to say whether they should use social media or not.”

These four expert responses do not provide a definitive answer to the question of whether teen-agers should participate on platforms like Instagram, but they do encode some useful insights. At the core of Steinberg and Orben’s equivocations on the topic is their conviction that we lack a strong signal in the data that shows an unambiguous link between social media and reduced well-being. Reading the literature in more detail makes it clear that we shouldn’t expect such a strong signal anytime soon. Non-scientists often assume that measuring the impact of behavior is straightforward: Can’t we just compare teen-agers who use social media to those who don’t and see which group is happier? The issue is that humans are complicated. Many factors influence well-being, and many of these factors are correlated in subtle ways—maybe the very reason you use social media more as a teen-ager is to feel better about other issues that are already making you sad. Soon after Orben and Przybylski published their study in Nature Human Behaviour, for example, a group of researchers, including Haidt, published a reply in the same journal, arguing, among other things, that the minor negative correlation in the original paper increases significantly when you change the behavior studied from screen time in general to social media use more specifically. Orben and Przybylski then responded with a reply to the reply—and so turns the slow wheel of research progress.

For a particularly dispiriting case study of how long it sometimes takes to establish definitive causation between behaviors and negative outcomes, consider the effort involved in connecting smoking to lung cancer. The first major study showing a statistical correlation between cigarettes and cancer, authored by Herbert Lombard and Carl Doering of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Harvard School of Public Health, was published in 1928. I recently came across an article in the archives of The Atlantic from 1956—nearly thirty years later—in which the author was still trying to convince skeptics who were unhappy with the types of confounding factors that are unavoidable in scientific studies. “If it has not been proved that tobacco is guilty of causing cancer of the lung,” the article pleads, “it has certainly been shown to have been on the scene of the crime.”

So where does this leave us? If the science is not yet ready to give us a definitive answer about the impact of social media on teen-agers, then Amy Orben is right when she notes that, in her role as a scientist, she can’t tell you what to do with your kids. But this isn’t an issue that we need to fully defer to science. Unlike the hard-to-detect development of lung-cancer cells, when it comes to the well-being of teen-agers, we can, as parents or educators, often clearly observe what seems to make a difference. Even more directly, we can ask the teen-agers themselves. As Adam Alter noted, it doesn’t take much time chatting about social media with these groups before alarms begin to ring. In other words, you don’t need a specification-curve analysis to uncover the potential negative impacts of Instagram—just ask any teen-age girl. Of course, even given the high level of concern about these tools, the right response is still not obvious. It might turn out that the best way forward is to treat teen-age social media like teen-age smoking, and reorient our culture to discourage it altogether. It might also turn out, however, that a more nuanced approach is needed, where we change our culture to make it easier to choose not to use social media, enabling the subset of people who suffer disproportionately from its effects to find a socially acceptable escape from the technologies that unsettle them.

What is obvious, however, is that regardless of what answers we end up with, we need to keep debating these fundamental questions. As Zuckerberg emphasized in his defensive post, he wants us to concede that his products are inevitable, and that we have no choice but to move on to discussing their features and safeguards. We might think we’re really sticking it to these social-media giants when we skewer their leaders in congressional hearings, or write scathing commentary pieces about the shortcomings of their moderation policies, but, in some sense, this response provides a reprieve because it sidesteps the conversation that these companies are trying hardest to avoid: the conversation about whether, in the end, the buzzy, digital baubles they offer are really worth all the trouble they’re creating.


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‘Frantic race backwards’ for China media freedoms: Report – Al Jazeera English

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Reporters Without Borders says at least 127 journalists are detained in China, as Beijing takes ever harsher line on media freedoms.

At least 127 journalists – from major international news outlets to bloggers – are currently detained in China as the Chinese Communist Party continues a major crackdown on media initiated by President Xi Jinping, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has said in a new report.

China now ranks 177 out of 180 in the media watchdog’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index,  two slots above North Korea, thanks to a sweeping campaign to limit free expression across every sector of society.

In the report, published on Tuesday, Secretary General Christophe Deloire described China as a country in the midst of a “ frantic race backwards” as Chinese citizens continue to lose press freedom.

Chinese journalists and writers have become a target of the campaign and face charges such as espionage, subversion and “picking quarrels”. They include whistleblowers like Zhang Zhan, a Chinese lawyer who last year was sentenced to four years in prison for documenting the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, and Cheng Lei, an Australian Chinese anchor at Chinese state media outlet CGTN who was formally arrested in February and accused of supplying state secrets overseas.

Prior to their formal arrest, many detained journalists may spend up to six months under “residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL),” according to the media group. Institutionalised in China in 2012, the practice allows authorities to hold an individual in solitary confinement and constant supervision at a designated facility. The practice is frequently described as “torture” by those who have experienced it.

Cheng was detained in August 2020 and reportedly underwent RSDL before she was formally charged six months later. Her trial and sentencing have yet to be announced.

Nearly two-thirds of journalists detained in China are Uighurs, according to RSF, many of whom helped to raise the alarm about China’s campaign of repression against the Muslim ethnic minority and other groups in the far western region of Xinjiang. Uighur journalists and bloggers appear to face harsher sentences than their Han Chinese counterparts, like Ilham Tohti, an economist and founder of the website Uyghur Online who was sentenced to life in prison for “separatism” in 2014.

Australia ChinaAustralian citizen and television anchor Cheng Lei, who worked for China”s state television CGTN, has been accused of spying  [File: Australia Global Alumni, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade via Reuters]

Affiliation with major news outlets or second citizenship in a Western country has also failed to protect Chinese journalists, who under Chinese law can only work as “news assistants” for foreign media.

The release of the report coincided with the first anniversary of the detention of Haze Fan, a news assistant for New York-based Bloomberg News, who was taken away by plain-clothes police officers in Beijing last year. On Tuesday, Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief John Micklethwait said the media group was “very worried about her well-being” after 12 months of detention.

In a bid to control Chinese journalists in the future, the report noted, Chinese journalists are required to download an app “Study Xi, Strengthen the Country,” which can download their personal data, while they will soon have to undergo 90 hours of ideological training each year to renew their press card.

While the country has never been known as an easy place to report from, foreign journalists say that conditions in China have become more challenging in recent years and even more so under COVID-19 regulations, according to surveys by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China.  In 2020, 18 foreign journalists were forced to leave China due to deteriorating diplomatic relations between China, the United States and Australia.

China’s crackdown has also extended into Hong Kong, a former British colony once considered one of the most open places in Asia.

The territory is the regional headquarters of media organisations including CNN, AFP and Reuters due to its formerly high level of press freedom.

Media mogul Jimmy Lai is the highest profile person charged under Hong Kong’s security law. His newspaper, Apple Daily, has been forced to close and six other employees including its former chief editor have also been detained [File: Jerome Favre/EPA]

Following months of democracy protests in 2019 and the imposition of national security legislation, Hong Kong media has also found itself under attack, RSF said.

One of the highest profile cases was the closure of pro-democracy news outlet Apple Daily and the arrest of its founder Jimmy Lai, who is facing life imprisonment for “colluding with foreign forces” under the terms of the new legislation.

Six additional Apple Daily employees are also in detention, including the newspaper’s former chief editor and several writers.

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How to Make Your WordPress Site Run Faster?

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If you are struggling with a slow WordPress website, you are not alone! WordPress is the most popular CMS and currently powers over 40% of all the websites around the world. However, many Canadian WordPress users notice that their webpages are taking too long to load, or their media does not pop up promptly. Luckily, there are many ways to increase the speed of your site without compromising the quality of the content.

How to Determine Website Speed

There are many free online speed tools available for anyone to use. All you must do is copy your website’s URL and paste it into one of these tools. Another thing you can do is ask your friends and family to test out the site. Listen to their constructive criticism, as they will tell you if they feel that the loading time is too long.

Ideally, you are aiming for the quickest speeds possible. On average, a web page should load within 1-2 seconds. Once you hit 3 seconds, you run the risk of losing about half of your virtual traffic.

Methods of Increasing Speed

Use a Caching Plugin

WordPress offers thousands of different plugins to improve the efficiency of your site. Some of these are necessary for the site to function, while others are simply nice to have. Installing a caching plugin might be the answer to solving your slow loading speeds.

When visitors access your site, WordPress needs to locate all the script and then transfer it to their browser. When visitors are abundant to one website, this process can become very backlogged. Caching involves storing the website files in a temporary location on the visitor’s browser. When they return to the site, WordPress will not need to load the entire script, saving time.

Invest in a Good Web Host Provider

When people first create their website, they may be tempted to purchase a hosting plan that is as cheap as possible. This can be a big mistake, as poor hosting can lead to virtual security breaches and slow, unresponsible websites. Instead, take the time to research reputable web hosting companies that can provide you with the plan you need.

Many companies offer specific plans for people looking for WordPress hosting in Canada. A WordPress hosting plan is completely optimized for your platform. This includes additional tools such as enhanced security features, automatic updates, quick setups, and access to customer support agents who are WordPress experts.

Perform Regular Updates

As a website owner, you will need to keep an eye out for required updates. Since WordPress is open-source, this means that it frequently requires new updates. Elements such as themes and plugins will also need to be kept up to date to ensure that they are fully optimized.

If you allow your website to remain out of date, there is an increased security risk. Partially due to its large scale, WordPress is a popular target for hackers and other people with nefarious intentions. Remaining left behind with older versions of WordPress will leave you exposed to weaknesses that hackers are probably well-aware of.

Implement Excerpts Rather Than Full Text

For many websites, but especially blogs, people will have multiple web pages with different discussion topics. On your homepage, WordPress will automatically showcase full paragraphs from all your different pages. This is detrimental to you because your homepage will load slower, and viewers will not be as tempted to click through your other pages.

To avoid this, you can change the settings so that only short summaries of the articles appear on your homepage. This will encourage viewers to click into the article to get the whole story, and your loading speed will improve. You can change this through “Settings – Reading”, and then choose the option “For each article in a feed, show: Summary.”

Consider Using a Content Delivery Network

A content delivery network, or CDN for short, is when a collection of worldwide servers stores your site’s static files. The purpose of this is to reduce the distance between your virtual visitor and the server. When a visitor accesses your site, they will receive the files from the server in their city or the nearest alternative.

Using a CDN also reduces a website’s downtime, as there will constantly be a redistribution between servers if one goes down.

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Instagram, ahead of U.S. Senate hearing, tightens teen protection measures

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Instagram said on Tuesday it will be stricter about the types of content it recommends to teens in the photo-sharing app and will nudge them toward different areas if they dwell on one topic for a long time.

In a blog post, the social media service announced a slew of changes for teen users. Instagram head Adam Mosseri is to testify in a congressional hearing on Wednesday about protecting kids online.

Instagram and its parent company Meta Platforms Inc, formerly Facebook, have been under scrutiny over ways their services could cause issues around the mental health, body image and online safety of younger users.

In the post, Mosseri also said Instagram was switching off the ability for people to tag or mention teens who do not follow them on the app. He said that starting in January, teen Instagram users would be able to bulk delete their content and previous likes and comments.

He said Instagram was exploring controls to limit potentially harmful or sensitive material suggested to teens through its search function, hashtags, short-form video Reels and its ‘Suggested Accounts’ feature, as well as on its curated ‘Explore’ page.

The blog post also said that on Tuesday, Instagram was launching its ‘Take a Break’ feature in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, which reminds people to take a brief pause from the app after using it for a certain amount of time.

It said Instagram in March next year would launch its first tools for parents and guardians to see how much time their teens spend on the app and set time limits.

Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn criticized the company’s product announcement as “hollow,” saying in a statement: “Meta is attempting to shift attention from their mistakes by rolling out parental guides, use timers, and content control features that consumers should have had all along.”

An Instagram spokeswoman said it would continue its pause on plans for a version of Instagram for kids. Instagram suspended plans for the project in September amid growing opposition to the project.

The move followed a Wall Street Journal report that said internal documents, leaked by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, showed the company knew Instagram could have harmful mental health effects on teenage girls, for example on their views of body image. Facebook has said the leaked documents have been used to paint a false picture of the company’s work.

State attorneys general and lawmakers had also raised concerns about the kids-focused app.

Last month, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. state attorneys general said it had opened a probe of Meta for promoting Instagram to children despite potential harms.

 

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in New York; Editing by David Gregorio and Dan Grebler)

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